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The Electronic Music That Tom Wolfe and the Kennedys Frugged To

Mr. Subotnick’s long career in electronic music, which influenced artists as disparate as Paul McCartney and Kraftwerk, began with an epiphany. While studying composition in the late 1950s as a graduate student at Mills College, he played regularly as a clarinetist with the San Francisco Symphony. “I was a divided person,” he recalled in a 2008 essay of his separate roles as composer and performer.


A still of the vocalist Joan La Barbara, who is married to Mr. Subotnick, from “Crowds and Power,” their collaboration with the video artist Lillevan.

Robert Fantinatto

But when asked to write incidental music for a “King Lear” production, Mr. Subotnick realized that the electronic medium could help merge this bifurcated identity. Steeped in the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, Mr. Subotnick conceived of what he called “music as a studio art.”

“I could create and perform in my studio, and it would come out as a sound piece, which was at once a musical creation and a performance,” he wrote.

Mr. Subotnick subsequently helped found the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which became a hub of the West Coast experimental arts scene, fostering innovative music by Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros and hosting the 1964 premiere of Terry Riley’s pioneering Minimalist work “In C.” In collaboration with the composer Ramon Sender and the engineer Don Buchla, Mr. Subotnick helped design the Buchla box, a revolutionary modular synthesizer.

Unlike the contemporaneous Moog synthesizer, the Buchla lacked a traditional keyboard, thus pointing toward the potential for electronic music to make a dramatic break with the past. “To me, this was Day Zero for the evolution of music,” Mr. Subotnick said. “A new new music. Not a new old music. First thing I did was no black-and-white keyboard: no input that represents that history.”

But in contrast to his more radical Tape Music Center colleagues like Sender (who brought the Buchla to Ken Kesey’s psychedelic Trips Festival and helped introduce the hippie movement) and Oliveros (who saw in electronic music the potential for a liberating feminist practice), Mr. Subotnick did not stray far from his upbringing. Instead, he perceived the synthesizer as an opportunity to reinvent and democratize traditional high culture. He imagined that, if inexpensively mass-produced, the instrument might foster a new form of musical literacy.

“Everyone had a different kind of utopia that they envisioned,” the musicologist Ted Gordon said in an interview about the composers at the Tape Music Center, the focus of his in-progress dissertation. “For Mort, he talks about envisioning a Buchla box in every household. This could be a sound-light console in every middle-class American house, where you could dream up your own instrument and realize whatever the promises of the technology could be.”


Mr. Subotnick at work with electronic music equipment in 1967.

via Morton Subotnick

“A synthesizer in every house,” Mr. Gordon added. “It’s like a chicken in every pot.”

Mr. Subotnick moved to New York in 1966 to work with the new Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center and became an artist in residence at New York University. Skeptical of institutional settings, he requested space off campus and found himself in a studio on Bleecker Street, at the heart of the downtown scene.

As luck would have it, two rock promoters dropped by and asked if he was interested in participating in a new multimedia discothèque. Mr. Subotnick ended up running the Electric Circus’s ecstatic sound-and-light show with a modified version of the Buchla.

Around the same time, a Nonesuch executive showed up in the middle of the night — Mr. Subotnick typically worked late — and offered him $500 to create an electronic work for the LP format.

“I thought he was making fun of me,” Mr. Subotnick recalled. “I kicked him out.”

The next day, Mr. Subotnick stumbled on a Nonesuch release of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos and realized that the label was legitimate. When the executive returned, now promising $1,000, “Silver Apples” was born.

Unlike Wendy Carlos’s hit 1968 album, “Switched-On Bach,” which was created on the Moog and which Mr. Subotnick derided as “using new instruments to play old music,” what the composer sought to invent was a new musical language for the new medium.

“Side 1 would be about pitch,” he said, “and Side 2 would be about rhythm and pulse.”

The first part of the album is not unlike early electronic music by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt: atomized melodies, eerie sighs, hissing explosions of sound. But the second half amasses a swirling, propulsive momentum that stands in stark contrast to its contemporaries. Mr. Subotnick had a ready-made workshop for this driving music on the dance floor of the Electric Circus, enhanced by strobe lights and a massive subwoofer.


The 1967 album cover for Mr. Subotnick’s “Silver Apples of the Moon.”

“I don’t want people to dance to ‘Silver Apples of the Moon’ as a record,” he said in the interview — Mr. Subotnick had described the album on its jacket as “a kind of chamber music” — “but if I am at a live thing, I’d like them to feel the power of the pulse.”

Silver Apples Of The Moon – Morton Subotnick 1967 (Full Album Reissue) Video by sound light

The record became a surprise hit for Nonesuch, and the rhythms of Side 2 caught on quickly with a mainstream audience. Bands including the Grateful Dead and Mothers of Invention began stopping by Mr. Subotnick’s studio to hang out; he declined two invitations to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” because he worried that his work would be seen as a gimmick. “Do I want millions of people to see me be used as a prop for this guy?” he remembered thinking at the time.

But while his music influenced later generations of techno musicians, he has chosen to remain almost willfully oblivious to pop culture. “I knew that I was making, more or less, high art music,” Mr. Subotnick said. “I thought that there would be more interest in fine art music than actually happened.”

Though the Buchla did not ultimately find a place in homes across the country, the wide reach of “Silver Apples” did provide a kind of test case for Mr. Subotnick’s idea that complex electronic music might be widely accessible. Alongside his compositional projects, he has continued to pursue this democratizing ethos. In the 1990s he designed a series of multimedia CD-ROMs to teach children how to compose electronic music, and in 2012 he released “Pitch Painter,” a musical finger-painting app.

In a makeshift rehearsal studio in the basement of his home, Mr. Subotnick displayed the setup for the coming Lincoln Center performances: computers, samplers and a modern update of the Buchla he used to create “Silver Apples.” He toyed with samples from the old and new compositions and hummed into a breath controller to demonstrate the ricocheting splatters of sound that will appear in “Crowds and Power.”

The new work takes its name from a 1960 political treatise by Elias Canetti, a critique of mass thinking that speaks to Mr. Subotnick’s valuing of the individual. The music is entirely abstract — Ms. La Barbara will sing syllabic murmurs, not a specific text — but Mr. Subotnick sees its message as resonant with the current moment.

Preview: Morton Subotnick at Lincoln Center Festival Video by Lincoln Center

“I started this long before there was a Trump,” he said. “It’s my statement about how it feels to raise the issue that we’re always going to be in this position of losing ourselves in crowds.”

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